Delivering tradition with a twist for Passover

Caterer Dawn LaRochelle carries a tray of tsimmes. Caterer Dawn LaRochelle carries a tray of tsimmes. (STEVE MILLER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Stacey Morris
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2009

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GREAT BARRINGTON - Dawn LaRochelle's annual Passover quest has begun: She wants to put a new spin on ancient traditions. The idea is that her food will feel modern and dazzle her catering clients, but it must also adhere to kosher standards stringent enough to get the nod of approval from an Orthodox rabbi.

LaRochelle, owner and operator of Bete'Avon! Kosher Catering (bete' avon is Hebrew for bon appetit), prepares dinners for customers in Boston, Western Mass., New York's Hudson Valley, and beyond. This year for Passover, which begins April 8 with the first Seder, LaRochelle is testing recipes in her home here. "Passover is even more strict than ordinary kosher cooking," says the caterer. "But I look at possibilities, not the limitations."

This year, she's taking a shot at elevating the texture of the famously dense matzo ball by folding a batch of beaten egg whites into the batter. "Most of my clientele like the fluffy floaters," she says, separating the eggs. "But the more observant like the sinkers. I don't know why." LaRochelle is referring to the long-held debate over feathery matzo balls, which float while they cook, vs. the heavier, heartier ones, which tend to sink to the bottom of the pot. She's trying to achieve a pillow-like texture.

LaRochelle has run Apogee Catering for the past three years and started Bete'Avon, an entirely separate company, in 2007. She began the second business after noticing a growing need for kosher catering in the region, in part because the Berkshires have a sizable Orthodox population.

On today's menu is chicken soup to serve with the matzo balls; a meatless tsimmes made with carrots, sweet potatoes, pears, prunes, dates, figs, and apricots; and a flourless chocolate cake topped with chocolate ganache flavored with raspberry jam.

LaRochelle grew up in the New York area, and became a lawyer; she worked for several years as a litigator until becoming disenchanted with the tedium of researching stalled court cases. Her legal background, she says, gives her the ability to think quickly and trouble-shoot when fuses blow on a catering site and other things go wrong. She was raised in a Jewish household but only began observing the kosher dietary laws as an adult. She and her husband, Dennis, who is not Jewish, met at Harvard Law School, where she cofounded Harvard's Food and Wine Society.

"I'm self-taught with a tremendous passion for cooking," she says. "I like flavor and I like exotic." She is adding a confetti of julienned zucchini and yellow squash to a pot of simmering chicken soup. The vegetable strips are meant to mimic egg noodles. Along with leavened bread, rice, corn, oats, and wheat, noodles are forbidden during the weeklong Passover.

The julienne of vegetables is one of LaRochelle's unconventional twists on her grandmother's chicken soup (LaRochelle calls her recipe "twisted"). Another is the addition of smoked chicken bones, something she learned from fellow caterer Carl Jones of Jackson, Tenn.

Her meatless tsimmes cooks for several hours. LaRochelle ricochets around her yellow kitchen, zeroes in on a jar of cinnamon from the spice rack, and pulls a Henckels knife from its wood base to chop sweet potatoes for the mixture. "My goal is to provide high-end meals with ingredients that are creative," she explains. She lifts the lid off the stock pot of simmering matzo balls to make sure they're intact (some cooks believe you shouldn't open the pot during cooking, but because of the fluffy nature of these matzo balls, she thinks it's fine to check them). "You can't boil them hard," she says. "Or they'll stay raw inside."

When she's catering for Bete'Avon! events, LaRochelle and her staff prepare meals at a commercial kitchen in the Pioneer Valley that adheres to Orthodox standards. Rabbi Fred Hyman of the Vaad HaKashruth of Springfield certifies Bete'Avon!'s meals.

LaRochelle, a long-distance runner, compares the challenges of incubating recipes in a low-tech home kitchen to prepping for a marathon. "I train on a harder route than I run for marathons," says LaRochelle. "If I can get a recipe right on a stove that's not perfectly calibrated, then doing it at a professional kitchen will be that much easier." She ladles a matzo ball into a soup bowl and inspects it. A coil of steam rises off the top. After simmering for 15 minutes in a pot of chicken stock, the golf-ball size has swollen to something that resembles a baseball.

And none of them sunk to the bottom of the pot.

"OK, these really are fluffy," she says, cutting into one.

"But I'll make them smaller next time."

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